On the Record: Sube Y Baja

Matthew Fairhurst 19 February 2019

Charanga Habanera’s 2000 masterpiece El Charanguero Mayor emerged from the turmoil of the so-called ‘Charanga Wars’ of the late 1990s. After the group was hit by the Cuban government with a six-month suspension thanks to a raucous television appearance, the entire band – save for prodigious young singer Michel Maza – departed to form Charanga Forever. Musical director David Calzado was left with the task of replacing the seemingly irreplaceable; yet El Charanguero Mayor represents a triumphant comeback, and is undoubtedly one of timba’s greatest albums.

‘Sube Y Baja’ follows ‘Tema Introducción’, a furious one-minute introduction to the new band that feels like a pointed display of their musical capabilities. ‘Sube Y Baja’ is a more explicit comment on the controversy of the previous years; while it might ostensibly be a song about romance, the dilemma of the opening lines – “Ahora me pregunto: ¿qué hago? ¿Me subo, o me bajo?” (“Now I wonder what I’m going to do – am I on my way up or down?”)  – clearly pertains to Calzado’s situation as much as it does to that of the narrator.

The song bursts into life with a piano riff, or montuno, courtesy of the band’s new pianist, Tirso Duarte. Still in his early twenties, Duarte would go on to be recognised as one of the great Cuban pianists of recent times, and on the evidence of this montuno it’s easy to see why. Out of the raw materials of an unremarkable chord progression and some basic rhythmic parameters, Duarte constructs an irrepressibly bright and joyful motif that sets an energetic, optimistic tone for the rest of the song.

The lyrics of the song’s main body are even more trenchant; singer Aned Mota declares, “No veo a nadie pensar, creando cosas nuevas…” (“I don’t see anyone thinking, creating new things…”) in an apparent jab against the different timba bands’ respective powers of invention. Through a breakdown propelled by the synthesizer, another feature through which timba distinguishes itself from its predecessors, we’re launched into a call-and-response pattern between Mota and the rest of the band that’s characteristic of Cuban music. Timba draws for inspiration not only on the likes of salsa, but equally from other popular contemporary genres: the influence of rap is evident on the opening of ‘Sube Y Baja’, and the chord progression and brass interlude during this later section are tinged with jazz, a style in which the likes of Duarte are well-versed.

There follows a change of rhythmic feel as we launch back into Duarte’s first montuno. Salsa and timba percussion sections comprise a so-called ‘Holy Trinity’ of drummers – a conguero, a timbalero, and a bongocero – who play overlapping parts throughout the song. Here, as the bass drops onto a sustained note and all the pent-up energy accumulated in the previous section floods out, the percussionists slip effortlessly into a set of rhythms that are quite different to the mambo feel that they’ve been maintaining up until this point, but which are just as respectful of the clave.

Most Cuban music is governed by clave, a syncopated pattern of five notes played across two bars in a repeating pattern. All other instrumental parts fall into patterns influenced by these strokes, and in time, these patterns become instinctive and predictable, ingraining a second layer of syncopation into the music. Charanga Habanera’s percussion section have their own set of idiosyncratic rhythmic figures which they constantly produce over the course of El Charanguero Mayor, and which are specifically intended to run contrary to these expected patterns, adding a third level of syncopation to ‘Sube Y Baja’.

Under another of Duarte’s dazzling montunos, the percussion and bass toy with us just as we anticipate a return to a mambo groove, drawing us in with numerous false starts. Meanwhile, brass and vocal parts vie for prominence, as Mota decides against this frenzied backdrop that he probably enjoys the highest level of popularity on Cuba’s streets. The narrator’s musings on their trajectory come to a head as they declare, “He decidido quedarme arriba” (“I’ve decided to stay on top”), which undoubtedly reflects Calzado’s confidence in his new outfit. In light of their spectacular performance here, it would be difficult indeed to argue that his faith is misplaced.